Lowell Election Charter program

Last Thursday night I was a part of a panel that discussed the pros and cons of Lowell’s method of electing city councilors and school committee members. The panel was organized and videotaped by Lowell Telecommunications Corp (LTC) and is now available for viewing on LTC’s YouTube channel.

Here’s how LTC described the purpose of the program and the panelists:

Election Representation in Lowell was the topic of a panel discussion at LTC on September 29. Michael Gallagher, a Lowell Attorney moderated the conversation. Panelists were Sidney Liang of the Lowell Community Health Center, George Pillsbury from Nonprofit Votes, Lowell City Councilor Jim Leary, and Dick Howe, Register of Deeds for Middlesex North District. The discussion covered the pros and cons of including ward representation in the Lowell City Charter.

Here is some of the history of Lowell’s method of electing local officials:

Lowell received its town charter in 1826 but became a city in 1836. At that time, executive power was vested in a mayor who was elected at large by the voters. Legislative power was divided between a board of alderman who were elected city wide, and a large “common council” which was ward-based. Changes to the charter occurred in 1875, 1911, and 1921, but all retained the elected strong mayor and the two separate elected boards.

A major change occurred when the voters, in 1942, voted to adopt the Plan E form of government. That came in the aftermath of the elected mayor’s conviction of bribery. The vote was 16,000 for Plan E; 14,000 to retain the existing system. So Plan E went into effect in 1944 with a city manager who was selected by nine city councilors who were elected citywide.

However in 1944, councilors were elected by “proportional representation.” In that system, voters still could vote for nine candidates, but they had to number their choices, one through nine. Winners were selected through a complex calculation that gave much weight to the amount of “number one” votes a candidate received. The proportional representation system makes it easier for someone with a relatively small, very committed group of supporters to be elected. That same candidate, lacking broad, citywide support, would likely be defeated in a plurality election system in which the nine candidates who receive the most votes win. In 1957, Lowell voters repealed the proportional representation system in favor of a plurality system which is essentially the system we have today.

Lowell voters contemplated changing the system in 1969 when they elected a nine member charter commission. That commission met over a two year period and recommended a change to a strong mayor form of government. When that proposal appeared on the ballot in 1971, voters defeated it by a wide margin.

In 1993, four non-binding referendum questions appeared on the ballot. The questions and the results were as follows:

Keep Plan E (city manager) – 48% yes, 52% no

Adopt strong mayor government – 61% yes, 39% no

Adopt district councilors instead of at-large – 43% yes, 57% no

Term Limits for city councilors – 70% yes, 30% no.

None of the changes contemplated by these nonbinding questions was ever enacted. One reason may be that 1993 also saw the election of six new city councilors (out of nine). Something similar happened in 1969 when five new councilors were elected. My theory, in both cases, was that initial support for a charter change reflected dissatisfaction with the performance of the incumbent city council. By replacing a majority of city councilors, voters fixed the perceived problem through the ballot box within the existing system. This undercut the impetus to change the system.

The most recent attempt to change the city’s charter occurred in 2007 with another referendum that sought to reinstitute proportional representation. That effort was defeated with 43% of voters for the change, and 57% against it.

With all that as background, please consider watching the LTC program. And please consider extending this discussion among your friends and neighbors.